Worker Wage Protest Brings Bangladesh Apparel Industry to a Halt

9/24/2013
Production at several hundred apparel factories in Bangladesh came to a halt on Monday as violent wage protests by workers entered their third day.

The workers, infuriated by the factory owners' paltry 20percent salary hike proposal, blockaded highways, engaged in vandalism and clashed with law enforcement in the industrial hubs of Dhaka, Gazipur and Savar on the third day of their agitation.

More than 60 people, including six law enforcement personnel, were injured in the sporadic clashes, which prompted authorities of almost all the apparel units in Gazipur industrial areas to suspend production for the day to avert the threat of large-scale violence.

"The managements of almost all the ready-made garment (RMG) factories in Gazipur industrial belt decided to suspend production at their units for Monday having suffered from the unrest," Kamruzzaman, Joydevpur upazila (sub-district) of Gazipur police chief, said.

On Sunday, more than 100 people, including 20 police officers, were injured as the apparel workers clashed with the law enforcers at Pagar under Tongi Police Station in Gazipur. The workers also took to the streets in protest on Saturday, alleging that management was not allowing them to attend a grand rally of RMG workers in the capital city of Dhaka.

More than 50 apparel factories had shut down during the protests.

The nation's apparel factory owners have proposed a 20percent increase to BDT 3600 (US$46.30) on an average as the minimum monthly wage for the garment workers. Arshad Jamal Dipu, representing the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters' Association (BGMEA) submitted the proposal in the fifth meeting, held in Dhaka on Sept. 17, of the wage board, which was created for the apparel workers.

On Aug. 18, Sirajul Islam Rony, who was representing the garment workers to the board, submitted another proposal before the third meeting of the wage board demanding a minimum monthly wage increase to BDT 8,114 ($104.36).

The BGMEA has prepared its proposal considering the general inflationary pressures on the economy during the period from November 2010 to till now, the rising production cost, prices of raw materials and the overall capacity of the industry, according to Mr. Dipu.

The BGMEA has proposed the minimum wage at BDT 3,600 including a basic pay of BDT 2,400 ($30.87), a house rent of BDT 960 ($12.35) and a medical allowance of BDT 240 ($3.09). The existing entry-level minimum wage for an RMG worker in Bangladesh was fixed in 2010 at BDT 3,000 ($38.58).

The labor leaders strongly protested against the apparel trade body's proposal, saying that the yawning gap between the workers' demand and the owners' offer was not acceptable in view of the present cost of living. The government earlier announced plans to form a wage board to pave the way for an increase in wages and improve productivity.

The minimum wage and other issues, including poor workplace safety in the country's apparel sector, has drawn criticism internationally after the April 14 collapse of Rana Plaza, which had housed five garment factories, killing more than 1,100 people.

Meanwhile, the government has urged workers to return to their workplaces to reopen garment factories from Sept. 24, while apparel makers have sought enough security to properly operate their factories.

The observations were made at a tripartite meeting held at Bangladesh Secretariat in the capital Dhaka on Sept. 23 with Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan in the chair.

"Apparel owners have requested the government to ensure security in our garment factories," Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, immediate past president of the BGMEA told the correspondent, adding that the BGMEA members do not want to keep their factories shuttered at any circumstance. The minister told reporters the meeting determined  that the closed factories in Gazipur, Tongi, Tejgaon, Mohakhali and Gulshan areas in Dhaka will reopen on Sept. 24.

"If anyone doesn't respond to our request, we'll think that s/he is working as an instigator of violence as part of a conspiracy against the country's garment industry," he said, adding that legal action will be taken against such individuals after identification.

On the other hand, the country's apex trade body — the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) — has urged the government to take necessary measures for maintaining stability in the country's readymade garment industry.

Voicing deep concern over the recent vandalism, arson and instability in the RMG sector, the apex trade body said in a statement: "The FBCCI expects that the government will come forward with the owners and workers for a quick solution to the problem for the sake of growth in the RMG industry and overall economic growth."

The apex trade body also said the FBCCI fully supports a justified wage structure for the betterment of the RMG industry and its workers as the workers are the key to production. The FBCCI noted that the country's apparel industry is in the midst of a transitional period and the government, along with other stakeholders, is exerting its best efforts to maintain the export flow to the world market despite limitations.

The garment industry is considered the country's largest foreign currency earner, constituting more than 16percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), more than 79 percent of total export receipts, and providing direct employment to around 4 million people, of which 80 percent are women.

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